“Where are you going, Madam?” He asked me as he pulled the yellow taxi back onto the crowded street in Astoria. His voice was higher than most men I know, sounding strange coming from that heavily-bearded face. The words were rising, falling, almost musically, with a strong accent I couldn’t place.
We’d already established that I was headed to the airport, and set a price since his meter was broken — something that had him very disturbed.
“If it’s stuck, I can’t work,” he’d said, throwing up one brown, wrinkled hand in frustration.
I decided he was trying to make conversation.
“Pittsburgh,” I told him from the back seat. A plate of thick glass or plastic, bulletproof? Separated him from the rest of the vehicle, but he’d slid one side half open.
“Is that near the Canada border, Madam?” he asked me, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. Not exactly, but more so than is NYC. I tell him no, it’s in Pennsylvania, to the west.
“Ah, yes,” he said as if that made everything clear. Then, “They have a verry, verry good football team, right Madam?”
The r’s in very rolled off his tongue, and I blinked, surprised. Talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers was the last thing I expected this rainy Sunday afternoon, with a man who didn’t know where Pittsburgh even was and ended every sentence with “madam.”
I told him yes, and he glanced back at me in the rear view mirror.
“Why do they call it Pittsburgh, and not Pennsylvania?” He asked then, and I wasn’t sure if we were still talking about football or not, but said it was because Pennsylvania had two teams. And either that answered the question or else he was too polite to ask again.
“Ah, yes Madam, that is it then,” he nodded.
He was from Pakistan, in New York City for half the year — his family liked the hot, not the cold. They’d kept up this six months here, six months there arrangement for 25, 26 years — if I understood his words. Every other sentence was lost in the salt-and-pepper beard.
And I looked again at the glass between us, and remembered the stories I’d heard – taxi drivers, particularly of any middle eastern heritage, shot and left to die by the strangers they drove around the city. I guess the glass was supposed to save him. I wonder if it would.
And then he’d pulled up to the U.S. Airways curb and I slipped the payment around the edge of the glass and stepped out into the rain and the wind.
“Have safe travels, Madam!” he called to me, and I wished him a merry Christmas before remembering that, odds are, he doesn’t celebrate this primarily Christian and western holiday.
And he pulled back into the road, off to find a meter repair shop that would operate on a Sunday. And I hurried into the warmth of a crowded airport, watching weather delays and canceled flights pop up across the monitors.
But I thought of him again on my second flight of the evening, the one that took me from Boston to Pittsburgh, as the plane dipped and rose and fell sharply on waves of turbulence and the pink cran-apple juice in my plastic cup nearly spilled across my lap.
I wonder if he’s got his meter fixed yet.
* * *
I think I promised pictures, but honestly my only moment of experiencing New York City was the taxi drive from Astoria to LaGuardia airport. We spent all Saturday wandering the aisles of IKEA, furnishing my brother’s two bedroom apartment with chairs, end tables, dressers, desks, curtains, rugs and on and on and on.
We spent Saturday night walking quickly past rolled barbed wire topping fences to car lots along Queens Boulevard, looking for a Bed, Bath and Beyond that was actually somewhere else. The rented U-haul cargo van swayed and bounced across the rutted and patched streets when we drove home, cutting off taxis and dodging pedestrians with a death wish. And at night the sounds of traffic joined with the steady rain and slipped into my dreams.
And despite snow storms crippling the midwest and threatening the quiet countryside outside Pittsburgh, my flights left more or less on time and the snow waited until we reached out neighborhood before it began to fall.
So no pictures. I’ll think twice before promising them next time!